Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.
That’s exactly what I’m doing with George Eliot‘s Middlemarch. And I’m not the only one; I’ve joined dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch in a readalong that spreads this loooong book over most of 2012. Now that I’ve read Book I (Miss Brooke), I see the wisdom in this approach. First published in serial form in 1871-72, it’s meant to be read in short sittings. There are 12 chapters in Book I; 130 pages altogether. To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story. I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time. Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.
Middlemarch is subtitled, “A Study of Provincial Life,” and describes the lives of ordinary people in 19th-century England. The book opens with a young woman, Dorothea Brooke, making up her mind to marry Edward Casaubon, who is much older but Dorothea admires him and has ideals about being his intellectual companion. But Eliot foreshadowed other possibilities, and introduced considerable humor into the text, particularly concerning the role of women. It’s clear she’s writing a very different sort of novel from her contemporaries, and indeed Sparknotes backs this up:
Eliot hated the ‘silly, women novelists.’ In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women’s writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent … Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.
By the end of Miss Brooke, Eliot had introduced about a gazillion characters, and I found myself wondering which ones will turn out to be “important,” and which ones are secondary. Also, who are the good guys? The baddies? I’m curious and ready for more to be revealed in Book II (Old and Young).
I missed the Team Middlemarch discussion of Book I, but the Book II “brougham halt” is March 24-25, and you can bet I’ll be there. I hope there are scones. Proper ones. Yum.